When radicals do and do not give clues to meanings of Chinese character

Radicals are interesting to learn about. They are so unique.

Many flash cards are made based on radicals and they always come with beautiful drawings. These flash cards want to demonstrate that learning radicals helps deciphering meanings of Chinese characters.

I made a similar but less beautiful flash card, see below. What I want to show here is that radicals sometimes do and sometimes do not give clues to meanings of Chinese characters.

radical fire

On the left side of this flash card, there is a drawing of a fire. Next to the fire, a character is written. This is the radical. Underneath the picture and the character, an English word “fire” is written below to teach the meaning of the character is “fire”. 

On the right side of the flash card, there are four characters. All of them have the character as the radicals, , , , and . Let’s see when radical helps us understand the meanings of these characters. 

  • (dēng): lamp, lantern. 

In the old times when there was no electricity, people used oil lamps, sometimes candles, to light up the room. A fire is very visible on oil lamps or candles. In modern times, fire is not visible in light bulbs. It seems that using a light bulb to illustrate the character is not the best choice.

  • (yān): smoke, mist. 

When we light a fire, smoke is always there. No wonder is the radical of the character for smoke.

  • (lú): stove, oven. 

Old fashioned stoves use flames to cook. It makes sense that is the radical of the character for stove. Nowadays, electric stoves do not have any flames. 

For these three characters, radical has a clear connection to the characters. It helps us understand the origins of these characters, if we’ve learned the meanings of these characters first. For students who do not know the meanings of these characters, this flash card offers little help. It is especially the case of the fourth character. 

  • (chǎo): to stir fry, to speculate. 

This character refers to an action of using a spatula going ups and downs in a wok. It has more to do with hands than fire. 

Here I could not think of any appropriate drawings as illustrations for this character . If I had a drawing of a wok and spatula, it seems to give an impression of cooking utensils. As for the other meaning “to speculate”, it is even harder to have a picture for it. Therefore, no still illustration is used for this character. 

That empty space next to the fourth character makes this flash card incomplete. 

If character is at the border line of using radicals to explain the meaning of Chinese characters, there are characters that can not be explained by radicals at all. 

Let’s continue with the radical . Take a look at the following character, which go further away from “fire”.

  • (líng): spirit, soul
  • (làn): rot, decay 
  • (fán): be annoyed, be vexed 
  • (xī): alkene 

These examples are meant to show that the claim “using radicals to learn Chinese characters is easier” is not true. There are always too many exceptions to this claim.

To have a flash card with is pretty easy. Everyone knows the concept of fire. Even my drawing is pretty bad, people still understand.

However, if I want to use other radicals to teach some characters, such as “”, “” or “”, I’ll have a hard time thinking the best way to use some drawings to represent them. 

Next time when you read claims about how useful radicals are for learning Chinese characters, or see a deck of beautiful flash cards illustrating radicals and characters, you know that it is only partially true. 

Radicals are good extracurricular activities. It is nice to know some connections between radicals and characters and the long history behind them. 

However, if you think studying radicals provides a shortcut for learning Chinese characters, you’ll end up wasting valuable time doing something not very effective. (By the way, radicals and 部首 (bushou) are two different concepts.)

Most importantly, radicals definitely do not provide a shortcut for proficient Chinese reading and writing skills. Focusing on words and structures works much better.


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